Small groups of people that decide to meet together around a common purpose always start off with excitement. It’s the excitement of the anticipation of belonging to something you care about. There’s a certain energy at the beginning that’s accompanied by hope that what’s being started will endure long-term.
But sadly, most of the time these groups are short-lived or they endure at a shallow level. This is especially true in the church as well; where the whole foundation of the church’s life together is supposed to be built on small communities of people networked together.
In this post, we’ll explore 5 common reasons why small groups fail.
They Have Inappropriate Focus
We’ve been called the “me culture” by many cultural specialists. This focus on individualism is marked by a way of life that makes the individual and his or her wants, needs, and desires supreme or sovereign over everything else.
When we gather as a group, we gather as a collection of individuals who are primarily concerned about ourselves, not as a community united around a common cause, concern or purpose. What makes us unique and different is more highly valued than what we have in common.
Small groups end up being a place to provide occasions for individuals to focus on themselves in the presence of others.
The expectations for individuals are weak. Come if you have time. Talk if you feel like it. Respect everyone’s opinion. Never criticize. Leave quietly if you become dissatisfied.
The small group movement in the church initially emerged because church leaders were looking for a solution to people’s longing to belong. But, most small group members don’t enter with a common set of beliefs and purposes. Therefore, the highest virtue they can hold is the toleration of the beliefs and behaviors of the other group members. Without common beliefs, values and purposes, the group will typically not last. (Frazee, The Connecting Church 2.0)
They Use Inappropriate Spaces
In order to effectively build relational community among people, one must understand how the uses of space affect the ways humans belong to each other. If this isn’t understood, it’s likely that leaders will force people into spaces they are not ready for, and therefore aren’t comfortable in. Have you ever done this before? I know I have! This knowledge is the starting point of understanding why small groups fail.
So, let’s start with learning a little about the subject of proxemics (how we use space), where we find that there are four spaces through which people interact with each other throughout their daily lives. These four spaces have been labeled public, social, personal and intimate.
Let’s take a look at each space, its definition, and the healthy characteristics that are displayed when people are interacting with each other there. All of the bullet point characteristics below were taken from the book The Search to Belong.
This space is where people share connection over common interests or outside influences. For example, when people gather at a sporting event, they are not there to connect personally. They simply share a common interest in a particular team. They’ll wear the same jersey, talk strategy, high five when their team scores and complain out loud to each other when the team plays badly.
Although outside of this space they are strangers, inside of it they are public belongers to each other. Belonging inside of public space in appropriate ways is important to the overall health of community.
Here are some of the characteristics of people that have healthy belonging in public space:
- They are able to share a common experience, team, and/or personality without being compelled to pull these relationships closer.
- They practice social conformity. They abide by socially accepted rules and practices for public life.
- They develop the skills to welcome strangers as belongers.
- They participate significantly in one-time, episodic, and/or site-specific ways.
- They find appropriate visual focus. This visual focus does not convey a social, personal, or intimate “touch.” For example, eye contact for more than a glance communicates a desire to be in a space other than public.
- They develop a sense of humor. This humor offers a degree of detachment.
- They have developed a presence that conveys that they are comfortable in public space and that they mean no harm to those around them.
- They are comfortable with little or no physical contact.
This space is where people share connection over social details about their lives. When people see each other throughout the course of everyday life or at special events in this space, they “catch up.” You know – birthday parties, family reunions and the like. This space acts like a safety zone where people can interact without any expectations of moving to a deeper space. If the desire by one person to move to a deeper space (personal or intimate) is presented verbally or non-verbally to another, the environment allows the receiver the freedom to accept or reject the invitation without creating an awkward situation. This space allows people to feel comfortable while they decide which spaces to be in with each other.
Here are some of the characteristics of people that have healthy belonging in social space:
- They can formulate a congruent, authentic snapshot of who they are and what it might be like to have a relationship with them in personal space. This self matches both who they are and who they are becoming with the surrounding social setting.
- They can discern when others are projecting a congruent, authentic “self.”
- They have developed the ability to help others create their own snapshots by creating a social environment that both permits and promotes healthy self-projection.
- They are comfortable with spontaneous, and sometimes short, interaction.
- They have harmony between defensive and offensive practices.
- They are tactful.
- They have the ability to play and/or organize purposely-engineered social games.
- They are able to keep pleasant visual contact with others in social space. Eye contact come through short glances – long enough not to be rude, but brief enough not to stare.
- They can maintain a “working consensus” with those sharing the social space.
- They are comfortable with physical contact that has little or no meaning.
- They have developed a skill for “sorting” others into appropriate spaces and can move relationships to those spaces with a natural ease.
- They have developed the social graces of a neighbor.
This space is where people share connections over private (but not intimate) details about their lives.
When people think of community, it is typically this type of belonging they are referring to. More is shared than with an acquaintance, but not to the “naked” level you would get in intimate space.
Here are some of the characteristics of people that have healthy belonging in personal space:
- They keep confidences.
- They maintain eye contact for extended periods of time without it being an uncomfortable experience for themselves or for those in personal space with them. The relatively short distance provides a clear and focused view of the face.
- They share private information without sharing too much. Sharing too much would create an uncomfortable experience for themselves or those in personal space with them.
- They have developed an ability to nurture an interest in another person’s private information.
- They possess the skills to begin, grow and maintain a one-on-one relationship.
- They are comfortable with meaningful physical contact – contact that has no intimate sexual context.
This space is where people share connections over “naked” details about their lives. Of course no, this does not mean just physically, but with any part of a person’s being.
Here are some of the characteristics of people that have healthy belonging in intimate space:
- They have developed an ability to share who they are over and against what they do. They share definition of the “naked” self rather than defining themselves by their roles.
- They have a solid self-definition – they know who their authentic self is. This definition is the accumulation of their core self (mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and physically) and their traits, gifts, needs, and desires.
- They do not share their naked selves indiscriminately.
How relationships grow and develop between people has everything to do with how we set up, use and act in these spaces.
They Set Inappropriate Expectations
By nature, the movement through the four spaces is fluid and dynamic, not linear and mechanical. Although it might seem intuitive that you could move people through an assembly line-like process from public to intimate, human relationships simply don’t work that way.
But, church and small group leaders have bought in to a “one-space” philosophy that small groups are designed for intimate belonging with God and each other.
Public belonging is not any less important than intimate, it’s just different. Jesus himself was comfortable with however people wanted to belong to him. There were the multitudes, a crowd of seventy, twelve apostles, the inner circle and “the disciple that Jesus loved.” He never forced strangers to come closer. We need to learn to read the space that people invite us into and be at peace with whatever space that is.
The belief is that small groups are only “successful” if people get intimate and get more people to come and get intimate. This expectation values one space over another. Add to that the expectations that this sort of belonging should happen within a short amount of time (since the institutional church system demands leaders be judged by this), and you’ve got a recipe for why small groups fail.
Movement among the spaces between people is not something that can be engineered and forced through by power and control. Yet, these expectations demand that people be forced or manipulated into personal and intimate space even if they’re not ready for them. When people are forced into spaces they have not freely chosen to move into, they are likely to feel uncomfortable and unlikely to want to stay. This is the major reason why small groups fail to achieve what they hope for.
In the development of community and belonging, there must not be any relational strings attached. Programs built by institutions to meet corporate-like goals should not be what moves people to new spaces with each other. People should be given spaces that supply the freedom for them to move themselves. This requires that any sort of “master plan” timelines be done away with.
They Have Inappropriate Structures
The way we structure environments communicates what’s expected of those that come into them. For example, if we program an environment where people sit in a circle, we are communicating that they are expected to function on a personal level. When you take groups of people that are not on that level with each other (most church small groups) and force them into that environment, many will feel uncomfortable.
This kind of forced belonging rarely works. How you structure the spaces in which people will interact should fit with the spaces in which they are currently operating with each other. If you do, people will find connection on their own and form groups spontaneously. Over time, people will structure themselves in new ways as individuals connect and naturally move to different spaces.
In this way, true leaders of people are environmentalists and not programmers.
Programmers are trapped in the practice of trying to manufacture community with a good business plan. They create “belonging funnels” through which they try to push people, marketing them as the ways to get closer to God and each other.
Environmentalists don’t control and manipulate people “for their own good” because they believe they have the answers for everyone’s growth. They build environments where people have the freedom to choose to enter and grow. They serve from the bottom up by creating healthy environments and modeling healthy interaction that is appropriate in those environments. This involves sacrifice, dying to yourself and giving up control.
As a leader, this is the best thing you can do. Then when people are in these environments, they are to simply and gently knock on the doors of each space with the people they interact with and settle in where each relationship is comfortable at that particular time.
They Use Inappropriate Measurement
When you randomly force 8-12 people together in a small group, their belonging is contained in the public and social spaces at the start. Typically, social and personal belonging is as far as any participants hope to go in a small group. But as we’ve talked about, leaders typically hope, promote and plan for intimacy as their metric of success.
You can see how this poses a conflict of interest. This metric of measurement contributes to the pressure leaders feel to force relationships into that space. Then, if there is not enough intimacy occurring, leaders believe small groups don’t work. But in reality, the small group could have been just fine if given the proper environment in which to operate.
Measuring is not bad. Measuring things that aren’t important is what is bad. Measuring community by the numbers of people active in a certain space is bad because numbers don’t tell us anything about belonging. They simply tell us who did and did not show up. What does tell us about belonging are stories. They are the measuring tool of community. But, we struggle to use them because they are not quantitative. They are qualitative. They are something you experience, not report.
Small groups are good things, if handled properly. Participants have to understand how human beings operate with each other and allow the freedom for them to form their relationships organically, not mechanically. Then, God can and will use those relationships to bring forth opportunities to become like Christ and advance His Kingdom. (Myers, The Search to Belong)